Companies Say They’re Going “Carbon Neutral” — But What Does That Really Mean?

Lizzy Rosenberg - Author

Dec. 9 2021, Published 1:02 p.m. ET

What Is Carbon Neutrality?
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Between the ongoing climate crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses worldwide are looking to "go green" and lower their environmental impact. While some change their packaging materials, others have resorted to cleaner means of production. A number of major companies, including Netflix and Brooks Running, have also announced somewhat vague plans to go "carbon neutral" within the next few years.

Though this leaves many wondering what carbon neutrality actually means.

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Even the U.S. government is looking to go carbon neutral — President Joe Biden has already signed an executive order to make it happen by 2050, by transitioning to cleaner energy resources, electric vehicles and energy-efficient buildings.

“The executive order will reduce emissions across federal operations, invest in American clean energy industries and manufacturing, and create clean, healthy, and resilient communities,” the White House said, as per NBC News.

What Does Carbon Neutral Mean?
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What does carbon neutrality mean?

Carbon neutrality takes a somewhat indirect route of "going green." It doesn't necessarily mean that the organization is lowering its CO2 emissions, which deplete the ozone layer, and ultimately contribute to global warming, according to CNET. It really means that the company is offsetting the same amount of CO2 its emitting, by contributing to the environment in other ways. Maybe they are donating money to a sustainable charity, or volunteering for local environmental organizations.

To achieve "carbon neutrality," companies and organizations will generally start by taking the steps to calculate their environmental impact. Once that is set in stone, most take the route of "investing in carbon offsets." This means that a business will support an environmental project that looks to reduce carbon emissions on a global scale. If the company doesn't mention what these projects do, though, it can often feels a little bit greenwash-y — CEOs, take note and update your websites.

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In addition to spending on an all-electric fleet, electric energy, solar panels, and building upgrades according to CNBC, the U.S. government has signed an order to achieve net neutrality by 2050. To do this, it seems as though they will be investing more in disadvantaged communities that are affected by environmental injustice. They also announced plans to enact a “buy clean” initiative that promotes cleaner products with lower emissions. Again, it's something, but it's indirect.

Lower Carbon Emissions
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So, is carbon neutrality good?

While it's great to see companies and consumers alike wanting to put in an effort to lower their impact, carbon neutrality is good, but it isn't enough. Terry Nguyen of Vox explains slashing emissions is really what will substantially halt climate change.

"Companies or localities can’t just say they’re carbon-neutral; they should, theoretically, be able to document and show that they’ve, for instance, switched from fossil fuel energy to renewable energy," she wrote.

For carbon neutrality to make a difference, she says, it's crucial that companies also take additional steps to remove more CO2 than they emit. And oftentimes, companies, big businesses, and government organizations will put the responsibility on the consumer to lower their impact — when in reality, it's the corporations emitting the most CO2.

“We all have a responsibility to do whatever we can to address this climate crisis,” Peter Miller of the Natural Resources Defense Council told Vox.

“That’s true for individuals as well as companies," he continued.

Although supporting carbon offsets is great as a company, it's important they're doing everything they can to lower emissions — then we can truly look to a greener future.

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